Standards: sometimes good, sometimes bad

Standardisation

Standardisation makes many administrative processes better. If people are submitting forms, it’s easier to process those forms when they follow a standard design. If students want to find out the time and place of their lectures, they want that information in a standard way.

Technology has a bias towards the pursuit of standardisation, partly because of mass-production, and partly because this is how different systems interoperate. Likewise, a user’s experience of technology frequently benefits from standardisation. Tools are easier to use when they have consistent interfaces and behave in expected ways.

These standards generally come about in a top-down way. An organising committee or a designer establishes the standards, and the community then either agrees to follow them, or the system is designed is such a way that standards the are enforced by default.

Teaching

At its heart, teaching is not an administrative process. Good teaching succeeds through the connection of people with ideas, and it also succeeds through a wide range of methods. What works for one lecturer will not work for another lecturer; what works for one student will not work for another student; and what works for one topic will not work for another topic. There might be patterns in what teachers should and shouldn’t do, but attempts to codify this with any level of specificity are a fool’s errand. Pursuing a variety of teaching methods is good for everyone.

Teaching in any modern institution couldn’t take place without some level of administration. For example, timetables and assignment submission processes have long been embedded in the way we operate¬†universities, and it’s fairly uncontroversial to argue that these processes benefit from standardisation.

Conversely, some teaching processes are completely free from administration and technology. A student approaches you after class and asks for a book recommendation. No-one in their right mind would consider standardising this sort of thing.

The interesting bit for me is where teaching processes are mediated through digital technology, where the exchange of ideas and information takes place digitally. This is now a substantial part of on-campus education, and almost the entirety of online education. In these cases, technology is inclining us towards standardisation, while teaching considerations are inclining us away from it. Learning technologists are caught in the middle here. Our job is to help institutions in their attempts to standardise, while protecting the educational process from the harms of standardisation.

Distributing and contributing information

One area where learning technologists can contribute is in advising on how digital exchanges of information take place. Any part of teaching that involves distributing information is often supported by digital means of doing so. This is fast becoming a cultural norm. Whether the information comes from government, rail operators, museums, or universities, we expect information to be available digitally. We like this because it lets us access the information quickly, as many times as we need, unconstrained by our physical location. Likewise, when we need to contribute information, it’s safe to guess that most of us prefer to do this digitally. If the council wants some data from us, it’s often easier to enter that information into a webform than it is to print the form, fill it out and post it to the council.

But education is not a business of form-filling, and moves towards standardisation need to be pursued cautiously. Any standardisation should not occur at the expense of quality teaching. But employed judiciously, standards can improve interactions with learning technology, both for staff and for students.

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